Archive for The Great Dictator

Saving Farce

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2023 by dcairns


Chaplin-as-Verdoux-as-Varney answers the door to the mailman and indulges in his first bit of farce comedy, pretending his wife is upstairs in her bedroom instead of outside dead in the incinerator. Much of the farce in VERDOUX revolves around money, rather than directly around murder, though the murder is not, as Verdoux seems to think, an insignificant side-issue.

The pseudonym “Varney” implies “vampire,” from the Victorian penny dreadful Chaplin may have remembered, though I don’t know how widely read it was by the time of his birth. It also implies Reg Varney, star of lowbrow seventies sitcom On the Buses, but that one’s definitely an anachronism.

Farce is all about the terror of being FOUND OUT, and Verdoux has a lot to keep secret. His methods of collecting his late wife’s savings are treated with Lubitschian lightness — there’s a delight in showing the whole of his journey up and down stairs, in a pedantic, pre-nouvelle vague way. Richard Lester has talked about the difficulty of doing farce on film, because as soon as you start to cut, the audience forgets which door they’re supposed to be watching. The solution may be to cut less often, which may also be why there are more good farces in pre-nouvelle vague cinema than after, and why rather visually primitive TV shows like Fawlty Towers and Father Ted could do farce with an adroitness denied the makers of LOOT, HOTEL PARADISO and ENTERTAINING MR SLOANE.

Chaplin’s counting of the money is a gag that looks like one of his silent-era undercranking tricks, but isn’t. CC has really trained himself to riffle through banknotes at superhuman speed. Verdoux is an ex-bank clerk, but even if he weren’t, this skilled efficiency is appropriate to a man who has coldbloodedly made homicide his business, and is going about it all very professionally. The difference between Chaplin and a real bank clerk is that he doesn’t have to actually keep count, he just has to look as if he is. So as long as his fingers are moving very fast and the banknotes seem to be getting got through by this process, he’s perfectly convincing as well as impressive.

The busy-ness of Verdoux’s business recalls Adenoid Heinkel, rushing from artist’s studio to office. Heinkel too played the piano, and there as here the reference seemed to be to Nero. Verdoux’s ability to entertain himself at the piano while putting through a call which will make use of the money he’s defrauded from his latest victim makes him more inhuman, not less. But it elevates the mood.

I really, really like the piano gag — a knock at the door confuses Verdoux, who thinks something has shaken loose inside the pianoforte. It’s an audio joke of the kind CITY LIGHTS is so full of, it’s the perfect sound film development of the visual gag (see also Tati) and I wish there was more of this kind of thing in the film.

The newcomer is a woman to clean up the house for resale, and she’s played by Christine Ell. Mysteriously, this is her only film. Chaplin must have liked her face, which is indeed wonderfully characterful.

After setting all this in motion, Chaplin cuts away to the police station, where the terrible Couvais family are reporting their relative’s disappearance, and we learn that the police are already becoming aware of Verdoux’s existence, even though they don’t know his identity…

This is useful exposition — the cops established here will play a role later — but more importantly it generates suspense, because all farces are, essentially, thrillers. They have the same sort of moving parts, but move them faster. And, as a tale of murder and theft, MONSIEUR VERDOUX’s farcical elements are far closer to the crime film than is usual.

This cutaway also allows Chaplin to ellipse-elapse some time, so that when we rejoin him he has the house up for sale. He immediately tries to seduce the prospective buyer, Mme. Marie Grosnay (Isobel Elsom). A sensible woman, she’s understandably creeped out by his rapid advances. Verdoux’s ongoing pursuit of this perfectly sympathetic character will be a second suspense motor powering the later part of the film.

Hitchcock-fashion, Chaplin has us unwillingly root for Verdoux to escape justice, some of the time. But he never makes the moral mistake of having us root for Verdoux to successfully kill. That stuff requires careful handling, and it gets it, even though we can still find fault with some of the choices. Instead, Verdoux’ homicidal plans create suspenseful fear on behalf of his prey, the appealing Mme. Grosnay and the awful, yet perversely likable, Annabella, played by Martha Raye.

Fiona notes that the dressmaker’s dummy establishes the unseen late Mme. Varney/Mademoiselle Couvais as a large woman. “Well, he had to run the incinerator for three days,” I reply.

Verdoux (above left) toys “seductively” with a flower, tickling his chin in EXACTLY the same way he does at the end of CITY LIGHTS, but the effect is decidedly different. His overeager gaucherie in launching himself so wildly at Marie Grosney suggests he’s not as efficient at this as we first thought — the idea of Verdoux as a somewhat inept Bluebeard is not pursued elsewhere.

Verdoux, in an excess of emotion, falls out of a window. Chaplin may have seized on a more verbal form than DICTATOR’s combination of slapstick and dialogue, possibly because he didn’t feel like falling down so much, but his tennis practice has kept him spry and he can still do it.

Does this betray a slight overanxiousness on Chaplin’s as well as Verdoux’s part, a need to reassure us that however “sophisticated” the drawing-room farce gets, there will still be pratfalls?

At any rate, Verdoux doesn’t score, and probably a good thing for him, because shouldn’t he be abandoning the Varney persona, to minimise the chance of his various crimes being connected by the police?

Chaplin finishes the sequence with his first use of a shot of locomotive wheels which will become extremely familiar as the film progresses…


The Sunday Intertitle: What follows is history

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2023 by dcairns

To my delight, MONSIEUR VERDOUX has an intertitle. It’s very near the start, but it’s not at the VERY start, so it is decently INTER one sequence and another.

Here’s what happens:

TITLES. The movie’s true title would seem to be MONSIEUR VERDOUX A COMEDY OF MURDERS, but according to the convention that SUNRISE is not SUNRISE A SONG OF TWO HUMANS and NOSFERATU is not NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, except to distinguish it from Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, which is not NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE except to distinguish it from NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, the subtitle is generally omitted.

The heavily-lawyered writer’s credit tells us, pedantically, that it’s “an original story written by” Charles Chaplin, but “based on an idea by” Orson Welles. So how original is it, if it’s based off of something else? I seem to recall CC needed some arm-bending to give OW a name-check at all, and he wants to be very clear that all Welles provided was one idea, and he had to come up with the story.

But even if Welles contributed only the one-liner “Chaplin as Bluebeard,” those three words contain most of the story, since the life story of for-profit serial killer Henri Désiré Landru (that “Désiré” is a hilarious bit of black comedy in itself), known popularly as “Bluebeard,” provides most of the story beats here.

On the other hand, Chaplin didn’t NEED to give Martha Raye a credit in advance of the main cast list, but he did it because he really liked her (she seems to have brought out his human side) and was impressed with what she brought to the movie. She’s this film’s Jack Oakie.

The titles proceed in a series of surprising cuts, only settling down to dissolves when we bring in the cast. They’re also unusually BLACK. And simple. Little drawings of floral tributes frame the text. Reminiscent of silent movies, in all three of these features.

We learn that good old Rollie (here the more formal “Roland” Totheroh) is back on solo camera duty, and yet again there’s an added name, Curt (here “Curtis”) Courant, credited with “Artistic Supervision”. So poor RT has another German looking over his shoulder, after Karl Struss on THE GREAT DICTATOR.

One Wallace Chewning is credited as “operative cameraman,” a hilariously fancy way of saying “camera operator.” You can really sense Chaplin’s less attractive qualities in that choice.

Chaplin’s music, this time arranged by Rudolph Schrager, is straight gaslight noir stuff, a surprising flavour from CC. Schrager, another emigre, alternated between film scoring and musical direction, stock music, all that stuff, and seems to have been equally at home in thrillers and musical comedies. And nothing in between, except this one.

Associated Director Wheeler Dryden — Chaplin’s OTHER half-brother; Assistant Director Robert Florey — already an established feature director, Florey was smart enough to take a demotion to learn at Chaplin’s side. It’s possible he was also on hand as an advisor on French customs. Then Chaplin’s Directed By credit. His name appears a mere four times in the titles, although he does credit himself with playing four roles, even though three of them are just aliases and he plays them all the same way.

Then we fade up on Verdoux’s grave and Chaplin’s in-character VO begins, reminding me that, three years before SUNSET BLVD, this movie is narrated by a dead man. Ironic, given Billy Wilder’s dismissive attitude to Chaplin’s talkies — and, given that SB is about silent pictures, the connection is unlikely to be accidental.

The music has warned us that there will be serious stuff, the subtitle has subverted it, and now Chaplin’s VOICE, of all things, defines the tone. “Good evening!” Verdoux will invite our sympathy, admit but sugar-coat his criminality, will be elegant and tasteful when discussing distasteful matters. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS will adopt a similar approach and make much more of the contrast between spoken VO and depicted action, with an overt tonal clash averted by the avoidance of looking too closely at the grim details.

The tracking shot across the graveyard is very beautiful, in part because of the dark waving shadows produced by the trees. I’m inclined to credit Herr Courant. It’s actually a rather NEW idea — graveyards in horror movies are typically nocturnal studio sets. In other dramas, they might be locations in broad California sunlight. Sun but with strong shadows that don’t keep still is a lovely way of doing it, and might sum up the tone of the coming movie quite nicely.

“Only a person with undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture.”

What Chaplin does with his narration is a direct analog of what he did as a silent tramp: he transforms the conventionally sordid into something that makes an attempt at gentlemanly elegance. The attempt cannot succeed: you can still see the reality through the mask of delicacy, but the attempt matters, is everything. It embodies the spirit of UNDAUNTED OPTIMISM. Only a person animated by such optimism would attempt to convince a 1940s audience that his career of serial uxoricide should be considered purely as a commercial venture.

Intertitle! Behaving exactly like a silent movie one, but also like the program or playscript of a stage play:

This Benito is Neat-o

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2022 by dcairns

Following on, in a way, from THE GREAT DICTATOR, and from some work and viewing I’ve been doing on Damiano Damiani, I looked at IL DELITTO MATTEOTTI (THE MATTEOTTI ASSASSINATION), in which Mussolini appears as a character and Damiani appears as an actor. Damiani wasn’t really a trained actor, but made modest appearances in his own films — this is his only acting job for someone else, and it’s easy to see why he took it on — it’s a political thriller comparable to his own work. In his GIROLIMONI, MONSTER OF ROME (1972), Luciano Catenacci was a wild, Frankensteinian Mussolini. In this film, directed by Florestano Vancini the following year. Mario Adorf erases himself to the point of unrecognition, and is a very effective Benito — not exactly like the figure in the newsreels, but with no really distracting differences. It helps that we’re seeing him behind the scenes, and at an earlier historical period than WWII.

I’ve got George Pan Cosmatos’ MASSACRE IN ROME, I may as well watch that one too. Steiger!

Damiani isn’t the only director in MATTEOTTI — Vittorio De Sica is there too, and he IS a proper actor — he suppresses his usual twinkle and comes on with the fire and brimstone you might expect from his passionate neorealist stuff but which you rarely see in his performances.

It’s a very fine movie — Franco Nero is Matteotti, done in by the fascists, precipitating multiple legal and constitutional crises. It’s all highly reminiscent of recent historical events in the US and UK, with a lot of well-meaning functionaries struggling to preserve norms, but not having quite the radical will to stand up to such dishonest and vicious foes. Gramsci, the communist, does understand the stakes and the risks, but isn’t a natural partner for the more moderate forces which include Damiani as Giovanni Amendola and the marvelous Gastone Moschin as Filippo Turati.

The budget isn’t quite there, and the direction not quite nimble enough to cover the shortfall — Italy has done better than Britain at preserving streets that can pass muster in historical dramas, but there aren’t quite enough extras to fill them here. Still, it’s an exciting and smart piece of cinema — the historical background is filled in so craftily that one never feels overwhelmed by info-dump, or that the characters are telling one another things they already know. If you like Costa-Gavras’ Z, you’re almost sure to like this. Full of things you can hardly believe are true but that you know must be, because it’s not Hollywood.